I was voted Most Likely to Succeed my senior year of high school. It made sense. I was always a good student; school came easily to me. I expected to receive straight A's and did. It was important to me and, while I didn't realize it at the time, it was much of my identity. I might not have liked being called "teacher's pet" when I was in elementary school, but I liked excelling at something.
I was achievement-oriented and competitive. I intended to go to a good school (and did, by the skin of my teeth). When I got there, I realized that I wasn't so smart after all. The work was hard, and I wasn't very good at much of it. I struggled, not only with the homework but with whether I ever should have been admitted at all. Eventually, I found my way and my major, but didn't know what my next step was. Like many an English major with no marketable skills or specific career aspirations, I drove myself to do well on the LSATs and went to law school.
Strangely, when I reached law school, I was a good student again. I'm convinced that certain people just "get" law school, and I was fortunate in that regard. It didn't guarantee I'd be a great lawyer, but I was a good law student. The thing is, I began to find that, while competitive, I didn't have much urge to compete. I attribute it to the bell curve and some freakishly competitive classmates. I always wished to do well, but unlike many of my peers, I never wished others to do poorly to bump me up on the curve.
I graduated, got a good job, then got a "better" job by all conventional metrics. Here, in all the long hours and all-nighters, is where I think things really started to change for me. With every assignment, I cared very much about doing it well, but I never aspired to work with the hottest companies or on the sexiest above-the-fold WSJ deals. I wanted to form meaningful personal relationships with my clients, peers and staff, and to do things right and well. I never wanted the corner office.
One night, on a coffee run with a colleague, I lamented the state of things at the office by saying, "I just don't get why everyone is so bent out of shape. It's just a job. It's not who I am or what's important." Completely earnestly, the shocked colleague looked at me and inquired, "Then what is?" When I listed friends and family, he looked at me like I had three heads. (I should probably note that this colleague went on to found a company familiar to any tech or Silicon Valley types, which I discovered only a couple years ago when I found his face staring out from Time Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People, so I guess it all worked out for him.)
Like many lawyers without a real passion for their profession, I eventually found myself looking for a second career. I found a job I liked, then less than a year and a half later found myself quitting to stay home with my first child. It was a difficult decision and serious adjustment. There wasn't much room for intellectual stimulation, achievement or peer recognition while spending my time changing dirty diapers and talking to an infant. If personal achievement formed much of my identity, who was I now?
It took a while, but I found my way at stay-at-home-parenting as well. Lately, I have begun to notice that I'm not so competitive anymore, and I'm certainly not achievement-oriented in the traditional sense. I've begun to use some of my newfound free time (with both kids in school) to pursue some interests of mine--photography and writing this blog, among others. I have discovered, in my 40s, that I derive great satisfaction from working with my hands. I enjoy doing things that have an immediate visible benefit, whether it's organizing a closet, painting a room, or weeding a flower bed. I think I might even have a latent creative side hidden under my analytical exterior.
For now, I don't need to be the best at anything. I don't need to be well-compensated or climb the corporate ladder to increase my self-worth. It's enough to do things that make me happy, to learn new things, and to do those things well. I can gauge my own success in the projects and hobbies I choose to undertake, and I don't need a successful business plan, a good report card, or the corner office to mark my achievement. I am happy, and if that doesn't mean I've succeeded, then I'm not sure what does.